Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review of The Magicians

Book 43: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, isbn 9780452296299, 402 pages, Plume, $16.00

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant but somewhat unhappy high school senior looking for any way out of his empty Brooklyn home life and being the third corner in an unequal love triangle. He receives an invitation to attend Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like elite college for magicians (so elite, no one really knows it exists; Quentin's parents are "convinced" it's just an oddly remote boarding school), and sees a way to make real life a bit more like his favorite childhood fantasy series, a Narnia-like place called Fillory. What Quentin ultimately discovers is that the key to being happy really comes from within yourself, not from the places where you find yourself. Or, at least, not solely from the places you find yourself.

The Magicians has been called "daring and inventive," and "the best urban fantasy in years." I can agree with the former, but to my mind the later is a bit of hyperbole. The book, in some ways, may be the most accessible urban fantasy in years, but that's not the same as being the best. It is, however, daring and inventive. Grossman takes what have by now become standard YA fantasy lit tropes -- the kid who is not who he thinks he is, the boarding school, the adventurous mystery land where animals talk and God in animal form watches over without ever taking action, the fulfilling of a prophecy -- and drags them all into adult fantasy lit territory -- people die (sometimes brutally), actions have reactions, decisions have consequences, drinking and drugs and sex happen, and most of all there is no clear-cut Good and Evil despite what the characters may wish.

Grossman covers four years of University life and two years of post-University life (give or take), in 400 pages. In the world of Harry Potter, at the four hundred page mark we were barely into Harry's second year of grade school. In most high fantasy novels, 400 pages would be just the start. Even in urban fantasy series, six years of life would take at least four, if not six, separate books. Grossman's decision to move time so quickly for his characters has an mixed effect on the book. On the one hand, keeping with the largely realistic tone of the book, time flies for these college students the way time flies for every college student (think back, even if you just graduated a few years ago -- how much of your day-to-day college experience do you really remember in any detail?). On the other hand, the fast pace works against character familiarity and development. We are told things about the characters relationships, but with one or two exceptions we don't see those relationships develop. I felt like I got to know Quentin very well, almost too well. I think I got a good sense of Alice and Eliot and even Janet, but the other major and semi-major characters remained sketches, and in some cases even ciphers. Not that I'd expect, in a book of this length, for every secondary character to get some kind of insightful shining moment. Heck, it takes Rowling several books before half of Harry's classmates are anything more than names, and after seven books some still remained undeveloped -- but I still felt I knew more about, say, Dean Thomas, than I know about Quentin's classmate Josh, who is a presence throughout at least half of the book. I'm sure many people will not feel this is a problem, but it was for me in at least one important spot. There is a character death about halfway through the book that should, I think, have carried some kind of emotional impact but which fails to carry any at all. While I can understand why Quentin is upset at the death, I didn't share that pain with him, and I think I needed to.

My quibbles about the book are relatively small, though. Spreading the story over multiple books might have helped with some of the character development and might have fixed some of the pacing issues. Then again, there is a sequel coming in 2011 and perhaps that will flesh out certain characters a bit more. It still won't fix one particular problem with the resolution of the book (and I see from other reviews I'm not the only one who has picked up on this), which lies in the motivation of the Main Bad-Guy. The explanation given is a throw-away line at best, but because it is the only theory given (and espoused by a character who should, in all honesty, be more aware of what the truth actually is than any other character in the book) the urge is to take it at face-value. It's too simple an answer for what should be a more complex question.

Despite these concerns, I enjoyed the book. I won't say "I couldn't put it down," but I will say that for the week I read it, it was the only book I picked up. I do feel like I understood Quentin and the fact that Janet is now high on my list of Characters I Love To Hate means that Grossman did something right with both of those characters. I am also grateful to Grossman for Eliot, a man character who happens to be gay. We get one or two glimpses into that portion of Eliot's life, but no less so than we see the sexual side of Quentin or Alice. Okay, maybe a little less so, but not by much (and I think that's largely a function of the book being essentially Quentin's POV, and he's just not around when Eliot is having sex). I'm hoping Eliot in particular will get more page-time in the sequel. Brakebills and Fillory are also very well developed places, as is The Neitherlands. In fact, one of the things Grossman really excels at in this book is a sense of Place (which is interesting considering Quentin is always hoping the next Place he finds himself in will be the one that finally fulfills him and makes the world 'right').

I'm already recommending the book to friends, and I've had more people stop me in hotel lobbies and restaurants saying "Isn't that a great book" than I've had for almost any other book I've ever read.


Your Life for a Story said...

Hey, thanks for the review! I've heard several other people make reference to it, so I'm putting it on my "to read" list.

You said, "I am also grateful to Grossman for Eliot, a main character who happens to be gay."
I'm really glad to hear that Grossman includes a gay character. As a gay man myself, it's always heartening when popular authors include us in their stories.

Thanks again for the very thoughtful review!


Talekyn said...

Michael, I'm grateful for the same reason you are! It's nice to see us represented in books where being gay is not the focus of the book. I mean, I like "gay novels by gay authors" as much as the next person, but also like to see us as just characters. If that makes sense.